December 10, 2016

Trump names bankruptcy vulture as Commerce Secretary

PBS - President-elect Donald Trump has picked billionaire investor Wilbur Ross to lead the Commerce Department. If confirmed by Congress, Ross will be responsible for implementing Trump’s promises to toughen U.S. trade policies and promote economic growth.

Ross, who made his fortune by buying distressed businesses and turning them around for profit, is known as “the king of bankruptcy.” He is the chairman and CEO of the private equity firm WL Ross & Co., and has an estimated net worth of $2.5 billion, according to Forbes.

Ross got to know Trump in 1990 when he helped the real-estate mogul avoid financial collapse. Trump borrowed heavily to help finance the Taj Mahal Casino — he’d spend more than $1 billion on the Taj. The 1,250 room hotel with $14 million worth of chandeliers was meant to be the crown jewel of his growing real estate empire. But the Taj Mahal failed to turn a profit. Trump and his companies owed $3 billion to its lenders.

Ross, who at the time worked at Rothschild & Co., represented bondholders who helped finance the Taj Mahal. He met with Trump and struck a deal to take over part of his failing business.

“We could have foreclosed [on the Trump Taj Mahal], and he would have been gone,” Ross said in an interview with The New York Post earlier this year.

As is common in the high-stakes world of private equity, some of Ross’ acquisitions made him a fortune, while others brought controversy and second-guessing. He drew praise for buying struggling steel mills owned by companies in Ohio and Pennsylvania and selling them to Mittal Steel, the world’s largest steel and mining company, for a $2.5 billion profit in 2004. The year after the sale, Ross faced criticism when 12 miners died in an explosion just weeks after he invested in Sago Mine in West Virginia.

In 2008, as the global financial crisis loomed, Ross began putting together a list of small, struggling banks that he could invest in. Over the next few years, he poured more than $1.8 million in failing banks, according to Bloomberg Businessweek.

The spending spree would lead some to call Ross a “vulture investor,” but when he sat down with Frontline producer Martin Smith in 2011 for the documentary Money, Power & Wall Street, he described his work differently.

“It should be called a phoenix, because a vulture just eats carrion flesh. Phoenix is the bird that arises again from its ashes,” Ross said. “To me, a vulture is the right word for a liquidator. We’re not a liquidator. We try to rebuild things. So it’s a popular slang term, but I don’t think it’s very accurate for what we do.”

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